January 12, 2011 / 2:47 PM / 8 years ago

Erdogan threat to Turkish-Armenia statue starts row

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The fate of a giant peace monument symbolising reconciliation between Turks and Armenians has caused a row in Turkey after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan branded it “monstrous” and called for its demolition.

The unfinished monument by a renowned Turkish artist consists of two concrete figures more than 30 metres high who face each other on an hill in the northeastern city of Kars.

A hand of friendship intended to extend from one figure to the other waits to be attached beneath.

The row centres on the prime minister’s right to demand the removal of an artwork on aesthetic grounds. His comments come at a time when rapprochement between Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia is at a standstill. Erdogan’s comments have been seized on by Turkish nationalists who condemn the monument’s message of understanding.

A bid to normalise ties between neighbouring Turkey and Armenia suffered a blow last April when Yerevan froze ratification of a U.S.-brokered peace accord.

Armenia, backed by many historians and parliaments, says some 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered during the upheaval that accompanied World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and labels the events as genocide.

Ankara rejects the term genocide and says large numbers on both sides died.

In a sign of how deep nationalist sentiment lies in Igdir, the neighbouring province to Kars, a monument consisting of five 40-metre-tall swords thrust towards the sky commemorates the killing of Turks by Armenians.

“I cannot imagine why the prime minister opposes a piece of art which symbolizes peace,” the monument’s sculptor Mehmet Aksoy told a news conference Wednesday.

“Given Turkey’s efforts to gain a peacemaking and negotiating role in the world, Turkey would lose its plausibility if it tore down a peace monument,” he said.

Speaking on a visit last week to Kars, a poor town on the Armenian frontier which once had a sizeable Armenian population, Erdogan said the monument was a “freak” and overshadowed the town’s historic treasures, including a Muslim shrine.

Aksoy said most locals support his sculpture, commissioned at a time when Kars hoped the border to Armenia would be opened, reviving its fortunes. It has remained closed, however.

Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay said Monday the government would not try to demolish the sculpture, but it remains under threat due to separate, older claims that it was built illegally.

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